“In the biotechnology market, it is crucial to have top-notch players, and Spain has them”
“Biocat and PCB complement each other. Working under the same leadership has enabled us to foster synergies and avoid duplications”
Let’s start with Biocat. How did it start? Whom does it represent?
Biocat is a foundation created in 2006, launched by the Generalitat de Catalunya (the autonomous government in Catalonia) and the Ajuntament de Barcelona (Barcelona City Council) to cater for concerns expressed by organizations working in biomedicine and biotechnology in Catalonia. The aforementioned organizations realized how necessary it was to foster the life sciences sector, which was then starting off in our country. The aim was to promote mutual knowledge and interaction between universities, research centers, hospitals and different sorts of companies -ranging from biotechnological spin-off companies to big pharma- and thus promote the creation of public-private collaboration projects that encouraged knowledge transfer and innovation. Another goal involved moving these agents closer to public Administration, which plays a key role in the development of the life sciences sector at the regulatory and economic level, and make sure that Biocat provided public managers with a knowledge reference as well as a facilitator able to promote cross-cutting strategic projects for the country.
The diversity of agents in the sector may be seen in the Biocat Board of Trustees: Administration, universities, research centers, hospitals, companies, science parks and support agencies.
Tell us about the biotechnology sector in Catalonia. Which are its strengths? Where do you think its weaknesses lie, and what is it lacking?
Catalunya has a complex ecosystem in which all the organizations that belong to the value chain of a powerful life sciences sector are included. One of our great assets is the extremely high level of the research being done here. We have 56 research centres working in bioscience, and some of them are among the first in the world in their field, such as ICFO -a pioneer in the application of photonics to health-, the CRG -a leader in genomics- IBEC -a reference in bionanomedicine- and IRB, VHIR, Idibell-ICO and Idibaps (among others), which are undisputed benchmark institutes in oncology research in Spain. 11 of our universities offer training in the life sciences, and provide for nearly 50% of research groups in this area; besides, we have 17 university hospitals; 16 science parks with activities in our sector and large research infrastructure, such as the synchrotron Alba-Cells or the Barcelona supercomputing Center (BSC). In addition, there are 560 active companies in the sector, ranging from small spin-off companies launched by universities and research centers to big pharma such as Almirall, Esteve and Grífols among the catalan companies and Amgen, Novartis and Sanofi among multinational companies established in Catalonia- and including a vast array of companies that provide specialist services, both scientific and non-scientific.
Our main weakness is the factor that most of our sector is made up of SMEs (85% of the companies), and nearly half of those are micro-companies with less than 10 employees. Our great challenge is to promote the growth of these companies, facilitating their access to public and private funds -particularly for early-stage companies- and accelerating the market launch of their products.
Let’s move along to the the global sector in Spain. Where would you position it when considering Europe as a whole?
This is still a young sector in Spain, pioneered by Catalonia. Its starting point may be found between the years 2000 and 2005; most of the large research centers that later on became benchmark centers were founded in the aforementioned time period. Between 2003 and 2008 there was an outburst of business projects that faced a severe economic crisis and cutbacks in public funds in a critical moment in their growth. On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies, which are trailblazing companies in the area, have witnessed how the public sector reduced its healthcare budget in a global framework with increasing international competitiveness and conversion of business models.
In spite of that, private investment has grown in the last few years (although specialized venture capital funds are still small in number), several relevant operations have been performed (product licenses, mergers, stock market launches…) and the international presence of our companies has increased. In a global market such as biotechnology, it is crucial to have top-notch players; Spain as a whole, and Catalonia in particular, have them.
The year 2014 was declared Biotechnology Year. Could you give us an overall assessment of it?
This was an initiative launched by several organizations that represent researchers and companies (FEBiotec, Asebio, SEBiot, FECYT) and it should be given credit for focusing society’s and politicians’ attention on the potential of biotechnology as an instrument for economic development and for the improvement of citizens’ welfare. Biotechnology is radically changing several areas, such as healthcare, nutrition, energy production or waste management, and it stands up for economy being based on knowledge and innovation. Standing up for this sector is crucial for the development of the country. This was acknowledged by the institutional declaration signed last December by all political parties represented in the Spanish Parliament.
Last December, the EIT (European Institute of Innovation & Technology) appointed the InnoLife project (fostered by Biocat) as a KIC (Knowledge & Innovation Community) in the healthcare area. Tell us about the relevance of such an appointment, and its consequences both for the organization and for the sector as a whole.
The EIT was created in 2008 to promote competitiveness in Europe by reinforcing the cooperation between entities in the three corners of the knowledge triangle: higher education, research and innovation. Innovation and knowledge communities in the EIT are cross-national ecosystems made up of national communities that represent and invigorate local ecosystems. Universities, business schools, research centers, companies and support entities work together to promote the sector on which the KIC is focused, through educational and R+D+i projects in which public and private entities are involved.
According to our estimates, in the next seven years EIT Health -the final name given to the Health KIC- will channel more that 1000 million euros in resources for projects devoted to healthy living, active ageing and sustainability of healthcare systems. Having a co-location center (CLC) in Spain, located at the Parc Científic de Barcelona (Barcelona Science Park) will channel European resources towards projects undertaken by our researchers and companies, will foster project transfer to the European scale and will facilitate cooperation between agents in the different nodes.
You co-lead Biocat and the Parc Científic de Barcelona. How do you reach a balance between the two positions? Do you think that “seeing the overall picture” is necessary?
The PCB was created in 1997, on the initiative of the Universitat of Barcelona, as an instrument to foster knowledge transfer and innovation. Research centers and companies are located in the PCB, where they are provided room according to their needs, scientific and technological specialized services and an environment that fosters networking and cooperation. The PCB community is a rich, dynamic ecosystem, but until now it has remained within its space limits. As I said before, Biocat was created out of the need of assembling a wider ecosystem that included and coordinated all agents involved in the bioscience sector in Catalonia. These are, therefore, two projects that complement each other. Having the same leadership team in both entities has made it possible to foster synergies and avoid duplications, something essential in a moment when resources are scarce and challenges are particularly important.
How does the PCB stand out from other science parks? Who belongs to it at present?
From the very first moment, the PCB specialized (though this is not a restrictive specialization) in the life sciences area, and this somewhat shapes the service catalogue it offers and facilitates the interaction between members of the PCB community. It was the first science park created in Spain, and it is a one-of-a-kind centre in terms of dimensions, trajectory and services offered. With nearly 60.000 m2 of useful floor area (30.000 m2 are laboratories, 9.000 are devoted to offices and 21.000 host services), it hosts three large research centers -the Institut de Recerca Biomèdica de Barcelona (IRB; Institute for Research in Biomedicine); the Institut de Bioenginyeria de Catalunya (IBEC; Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia); and the Instituto de Biología Molecular de Barcelona (IBMB-CSIC; Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona)- a large research infrastructure -the Centro Nacional de Análisis Genómico (CNAG; National Centre for Genome analysis)- and around fifty companies, ranging from the R+D center of Esteve (a pharmaceutical company), with a building of their own, to spin-off companies and recently launched entrepreneurial projects that benefit from incubation projects offered by the PCB.
Is biotechnology an area with a bright future?
Absolutely, and it will be increasingly present in our daily lives.This will be the case in the areas I mentioned above, such as healthcare and nutrition, but also in industrial production, where the so-called white biotechnology (which is undergoing significant development in our country and all over Europe) may bring forth efficient solutions that reduce costs and ensure higher environmental sustainability.
Given that most of our readers belong to the chemical sector, I would like to know your opinion on the approach between the two sectors -biotechnology and chemistry- as they seem to be closer to each other every day.
According to a widely accepted definition, biotechnology is the exploitation of biological processes in order to obtain technical solutions that may be applied to new products and services. In this sense, it is a cross-cutting platform that may be applied to many fields, ranging from drug or food production to bioremediation and decontamination. In an environment where chemistry has evolved towards a green chemistry approach and contributions and innovations from chemistry and biotechnology meet, cooperation is not only necessary but essential.
By Ana Crespo
Montserrat Vendrell (Barcelona, 1964) is the CEO of BIOCAT, the BioRegion of Catalonia, since 2007. Biocat is the organization that promotes biotechnology, biomedicine and medical technologies in Catalonia. Since April 2014, she combines the aforementioned position with being the CEO of the Parc Científic de Barcelona (Barcelona Science Park) the first science park in Spain.
She holds a Ph.D. in Biology (Universitat de Barcelona, 1991) a master’s degree in Science Communication (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, 1997) and she pursued the General Management Programme at IESE (PDG-2007). As a whole, she has more than ten years of experience in biomedical and biotechnological research in several international institutions, such as Roche Institute of Molecular Biology (Hoffmann LaRoche, New Jersey, US, 1992-1995) and the Instituto de Biología Molecular de Barcelona del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC, 1987-1991; 995-97).
Later on she joined the Parc Científic de Barcelona (1997-2007) where she was Scientific Director (1997-2005) and Deputy Director General (2005-2007). Since 2012, she presides the Council of European BioRegions (CEBR), the first European network of BioRegions, which was created in 2006.